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Featured Woman: Ruth Bader Ginsburg — Her Life and the Hobby Lobby Case

By Victoria S. and Ruthia C.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is the second woman to sit on the high court and the first Jewish woman to ever hold the position. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Ginsburg did not receive privileges as the daughter of two low-income working parents, but that did not stop her desire for knowledge. Accompanied by her mother, young Ginsburg visited the library every week to bury herself under piles of books. During high school, she was the editor of the school newspaper, a cellist on the school orchestra, and a member of ARISTA. Adding to her list of early achievements, Ginsburg, while juggling all of her extracurricular activities, graduated 6th in her entire high school class.

Despite the limited educational opportunities available for women in the 1950’s, Ginsburg succeeded in obtaining a B.A. in government from Cornell University and later, a J.D. from Columbia Law School. However, her academic success did not translate to the real world. Despite strong recommendations from her professors, Ginsburg was rejected for a clerkship on the Supreme Court because she was a woman. Justice Felix Frankfurter was simply not ready for a female to join his team. After much effort, she managed to obtain a clerkship with Judge Edmund L. Palmieri of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. From then on, it was smooth sailing.

Ginsburg is known for her passionate beliefs about gender equality-for both females and males. During her early years as a lawyer, Ginsburg worked for the Women’s Right’s Project and presented and won several cases before the Supreme Court. In Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1974), Ginsburg argued that the rights afforded to widows to collect survivor benefits while caring for a child should be extended to widowers because the gender based discrimination hurt both the father and the child. She stated that the law “must deal with the parent, not the mother; with the homemaker, not the housewife; and with the surviving spouse, not the widow.” Every major victory led to a new issue Ginsburg had to address.

On June 14, 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated Ginsburg to the seat of Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. From that day on, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been a strong voice for women and the underrepresented on the highest federal court.

Most recently, Justice Ginsburg’s voice has been heard loud and clear in her dissent in the landmark Supreme Court case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014). In the court’s majority opinion, the court holds that for-profit corporations can be exempt from a law on religious grounds if there are less restrictive alternatives of achieving the state interest, an exemption previously afforded to non-profit corporations. This decision was specifically applied to the Court’s enforcement of Obamacare. In this specific case, the Court holds that closely held corporations, like Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., which can demonstrate that providing contraception to employees conflicts with the company’s core religious beliefs are exempt from this Obamacare set requirement.

This decision has implications on the discussion of whether a corporation deserves the status of a personhood, and whether that affords them First Amendment, specifically free-exercise clause, protections. In Justice Alito’s majority opinion, the Court does not address the notion of the application of the First Amendment and therefore does not expressly address the issue of civil rights of an individual versus a corporation. I personally find this dodge intrinsic to the discussion and one that will surely continue in the Court’s future.

Justice Ginsburg challenges this majority opinion, which she describes as one of “startling breadth,” face on in a dissent that has been more talked about than lines of the opinion itself. She addresses the slippery slope of allowing companies to argue that they can be exempt from virtually any law by citing the statute’s violation of the owner’s religious beliefs. In this case, she points out that the extension of traditionally individual rights to corporations has denied female individuals access to contraceptives, an instrumental part of providing comprehensive healthcare for women. She notes that the company’s funding of a healthcare plan to female employees does not require the corporation to choose to use contraception, it is merely giving women agency in their healthcare choices. In this decision, the Court takes that agency away and gives it to the woman’s employer. Despite the implications of its ruling, the Court does not believe that discussion of the free-exercise clause is relevant to the decision.

While this overview of the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) landmark decision of the Supreme Court does not discuss the all the arguments presented in a detailed manner, this blog’s intention in recognizing Justice Ginsburg is to shed light on her career and her most recent position on an issue that is so relevant to the preservation of female agency. The issues the Court has specifically addressed and those that it has implicated will certainly continue to be contested in the public forum and be further elaborated on by the Court. Despite this, we feature Justice Ginsburg because she has loudly and clearly presented arguments that society needs to hear and consider. When rights are taken from a group, it is important to understand the broad and nuanced aspects of the issue and be able to coherently challenge it – regardless of the temporary outcome. Justice Ginsburg does just that, and we applaud her.

We hope this broad covering of this landmark case and this woman’s history inspires you to become a more attentive and analytical individual. This will better serve yourself and the dialogue and reality you are a part of.